In the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, I travelled on assignment from Paris to Moscow. When I called my interpreter to ask what I could bring him from France, he said, “Food. Loads of it. Cheeses. Tinned sardines, tuna. As much as you can.”
I was rather startled for I had expected him to ask for Moet et Chandon or some Beaujolais typical to France. I did take a bottle of champagne but my bags had less clothes and more food — when he met me in my hotel room, he was furtive. “Don’t leave your bags open at any time,” he said. “And I shall take those cans a few at a time every day.”
Much later I learnt that secrecy was because food riots had been happening all over Russia and any foreign traveler with access to food and wine was not safe anywhere in the country. As I set about reporting on those food shortages, I thanked my stars that I came from a land of plenty and believed that even if there were poor in India who could not afford the best in food, they would never have to riot to get any morsel.
More than two decades later, I am horrified that a potential riot-like situation is developing in one corner of India for something even more basic — water. Marathwada, in Maharashtra, is facing severe drought and the situation is such that many districts get water after days. People gathering at nearly dried-up wells and water tankers have got into scuffles, minor violence during water collection has become the norm. Understandable as this month Latur’s water supply came after 48 days. Beed got water after 28 days. Jalna received supplies after 25 days. Water tables have sunk and you can see miles of pots and pans queued up before water tankers — people are storing water in every cup and tumbler and, dare I say, even thimbles, whenever they get water supply.
No wonder then that for the first time that I know of Section 144 has been clamped in Latur district to prevent a water riot — no more than three persons can gather around a well or a tanker at one time and the authorities will strictly monitor how much water each person can carry away.
Atul Deulgaonkar, a writer and environmental activist, tells me the water that they are now drawing from wells is far below the surface and “about 1000 years old”. It has tested positive for toxins and avoidable chemicals, he says but when I spoke to the vice chancellor of the Vasantrao Naik Agricultural University in Parbhani, B Venkateswarlu, he said wryly, “When water itself is in short supply, you cannot be thinking of toxins. There will be health hazards but they will come later. At the moment drinking water is the priority.”
Climatic changes and the vagaries of monsoon are responsible in large measure for the situation Marathwada is facing but it is also the politics of the state that has caused an ecological imbalance in the region. Maharashtra’s politics is entirely sugar based and sugar cane is a water intensive crop. Yet, Marathwada has 70 sugar factories and the government has sanctioned around 30 more this year. “Next year none of these factories will be working,” Jayant Patil, former minister for rural development told me. “There will be no water for growing cane and no water for the factories.”
So how do people survive? For the rich, bottled water is the solution. But according to Praveen Purandare, who has filed two PILs in the Bombay High Court for the formulation of water laws, that is also the major problem. “A large number of politicians set up such bottled water plants and they have thus no stake in solving the issue for all times.”
But no amount of bottled water can stretch to all people in the region. Hence, Marathwada is facing not just the migration of rural labour but even professionals like doctors, lawyers etc are moving away in large numbers to Bombay, Pune and Hyderabad to escape the situation.
“The water ecology is so disturbed that Marathwada is on the edge of turning into a large desert,” says Deulgaonkar.
Only a good monsoon in the coming season will help. But then economist and former member of the State Planning Commission HM Desarda, is afraid that the government’s efforts at dredging the river beds have damaged the acquifers, so all the water will run away without lending itself to storage.
If that runs true, Marathwada’s cities are likely to turn into the ghost towns of Maharashtra very soon.